Defiant Publics: The Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen

October 23, 2008

Daniel Drache, professor of political science at York University in Toronto, describes recent developments in activism connected to the internet and communications revolution in a book that new students may delight in, but more seasoned scholars will find lightweight.

Defiant Publics proposes that new cultural flows of people, ideas and information - developed largely out of an era of unprecedented technological change - have led to an expansion of "public spaces", and Drache sees this development as having political implications without historical precedent.

He employs the work of Harold Innis to argue that in such an era, "the bias of communication shifts political power downward and toward the margins of societies", which he sees as an "exponential democratisation of communication". The new modes of communication, and the organisations they spawn, are, in Drache's view, "fundamentally transforming the way that politics happens".

The book is informative about the changes in social activism since the 1970s, and for those new to this field, it describes well many of the developments that have taken place over the past decade. It gives an engaged, positive and in some ways critical account, focused primarily on internet-based activism.

Drache is well read and committed to his subject, and the book is littered with excellent quotations from leading contemporary thinkers and activists. It provides some useful connections between theoretical writing and the internet-based activism that has flourished over the past decade. Here we find sometimes refreshing takes on Adorno, Marx, Habermas and Foucault, as well as an introduction to Canadian theorists who are perhaps less acknowledged.

But the book fails to engage much at all with the most relevant literature relating to either social movements or civil society. The book also leaves most key terms, including the central concept of "public", undefined, leaving meanings unsatisfyingly ambiguous. It is the failure to exemplify and interrogate that lets down Defiant Publics. Drache gives one example of how networking and activism can take off. A film reviewer reported for the website BoingBoing.net how a surburban screening of Michael Moore's documentary Sicko spontaneously developed into an activist group of people incensed with the US healthcare industry. They swapped email addresses and views about how to take action to reform the industry. But whether these people have sustained their activism and more important, whether they had any effect, are questions that don't seem to have been considered by the author.

Defiant Publics is largely silent about Asia, a surprising omission for a book about contemporary global dissent in the era of globalisation. Apart from a brief description of the "hacktivism" of Ron Deibert and his associates and their Psiphon program that enabled Chinese dissidents to bypass the online arm of the Chinese State's draconian censorship, the emerging superpower and its defiant publics are largely absent from this account. Ditto India and the rest of rising Asia. Drache claims: "With the globalization of wealth has come the globalization of poverty and inequality on all continents". Few will contest the notion that globalisation has mixed effects, but the view of it posited here ignores the massive, indeed historically unprecedented lifting out of poverty of hundreds of millions of the poorest people in China and to a lesser extent in India over the past decade.

Drache's view of Africa appears superficial too. He considers that the advent of the internet and mobile communications technology represents "the closing of the last great intellectual divide". When large parts of West, East and South Africa have less than 80 per cent of children in primary education, let alone secondary or tertiary, many would see this judgment as premature, if not fundamentally wrong.

For those readers who don't require terminology to be defined, nuances to be explored, relationships described and analysed, Defiant Publics provides a useful introduction to the theme.

The Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen

By Daniel Drache. Polity, 160pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745631783 and 31790. Published 26 July 2008

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